The e-mails, often forwarded by friends, vary in wording, but the underlying message is always ominous: Soon, all cell phone numbers will be made public to telemarketing firms. That means, according to one version, that "your cell phone may start ringing off the hook with telemarketers" and your precious, limited cell phone minutes will be eaten up with calls you don't want.
It's not clear where the e-mails originated, but industry and government officials say they are an urban myth; they are not true. There is no list of cell phone numbers being turned over to telemarketers, and telemarketers are barred from calling cell phone numbers.
Even so, in the past two weeks, more than 3 million numbers have been added to the government's national do-not-call list, and government officials suspect that the unexpected increase is due to the e-mails that are being passed around like a national game of telephone.
"It's driving registration numbers big time," said Lois Greisman, the Federal Trade Commission official who oversees the anti-telemarketing registry. The list took effect in October 2003, and since the initial flood of registrations, about 200,000 numbers have been added to the list each week, she said. But two weeks ago, close to 1 million numbers were posted to the list; another 2 million were added last week, she said. Today, a total of 69 million phone numbers are on the registry. Telemarketers risk fines of up to $11,000 for every number they call on the list.
Greisman called the e-mails "very odd," adding, "It is not malicious because it's giving correct registration information. But it's causing anxiety, and there shouldn't be anxiety."
Cell phone companies' plan
The distress appears to stem from a plan, unveiled this fall, by several cell phone companies to set up national directory assistance, a 411 system, for cell phone numbers. Sprint Corp., Cingular Wireless, AT&T Wireless Services Inc., Nextel Communications Inc., Alltel Corp. and T-Mobile USA Inc. have hired Qsent Inc. to develop the directory; Verizon Wireless, the nation's largest wireless provider is not participating.
Next spring, each cell phone company will begin asking its customers if they want their numbers included in the wireless directory, according to Qsent spokesman Jeff Fishburn. Inclusion is free, but customers have to choose, or opt in, to have their number in the directory. The directory is not expected to be activated until next fall at the earliest.
"The wireless 411 service will not be made into a list that will be sold to third parties," Fishburn said. "It will not be made into a phone book and not be available online on the Internet. The only way for a consumer to get a wireless phone number in the future is to call 411 and ask for someone, and then they will be given the option of the landline or wireless number."
The cost to obtain a wireless number will be the same as that for a landline, ranging from 50 cents to $1.25, depending on the customer's telephone company and state. "It's too expensive for telemarketers," even if they were permitted to call cell phones, Fishburn said.
'Nothing will change'
Since the first telemarketing rules were adopted in 1991, the Federal Communications Commission has barred solicitors from using automated dialers to call cell phones, the predominant way telemarketers make their calls.
"Nothing will change for consumers, whether there is a directory or not," said FCC spokeswoman Rosemary Kimball.
Telemarketing officials say companies review their lists twice a month to eliminate any cell phone numbers, as FCC rules require. Even without such a rule, "we don't want to call people's cell phones," said Tim Searcy, head of the American Teleservices Association, which represents call centers. "We know it eats up their minutes, annoys them, and the likelihood of them buying anything is very low. It would be a waste of our time."
Yet the mere prospect was enough to get people to add their cell number to the national registry — as well as pass along the e-mail. Mallory Walker, head of the real estate lending firm Walker & Dunlop in Bethesda, signed up immediately after he received the disconcerting e-mail this week. Then, he forwarded the message to more than 100 other people, friends and employees. "I can't tell you how many people called me and thanked me," he said.
Some of the e-mails say that consumers have to sign up by Dec. 15 or forever lose the opportunity. That's wrong, said the FTC's Greisman. "There is no deadline; there never has been a deadline to register."
If consumers are concerned, Greisman said they may register their cell phone numbers, either by signing up on the Internet, at www.donotcall.gov, or by calling 888-382-1222. Consumers signing up by phone need to call from the phone they want to add to the list.